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March 2006

The Desert Southwest (III): Preserving History

Greetings2_1 One of the highlights of our annual pilgrimage to the desert southwest, for my son at least, is a trip to Tucson's Pima Air Museum, a fabulous collection of mostly military vintage aircraft, perhaps as many as 300-400 planes collected here, taking advantage of the fact that they rust very little in so dry a climate.  The museum is located right next to the "airplane graveyard," miles of decommissioned planes from the Vietnam, Korean, and even WWII conflicts (and not really a graveyard but a restoration and recovery center), which is adjacent to the still active Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

These planes are like old friends to my 14-year old son.  As we walk among them he can touch them, admire them, remember them from our last visit, learn something new about them, and even make some new "friends" (this year, the still recovering B-36 bomber).  He absolutely loves the place, and I try to devote an entire day to it, even though my interest in planes is limited.

Many of the guides here are retired military, and they have many stories to tell about the planes.  I imagine that being here is also quite a joy to them; the old planes are here, and so are they, and that is quite comforting, that old things endure.

Since I don't know much about planes, I look at other things while I am here, mostly the faces of the men who flew these planes.  Today, I looked at photo after photo of the men who made up the 390th Bomber Group, a group of men that flew bombing missions in Europe during WWII, including the first bombings of Berlin.  You could tell something about their individual personalities just by the photos -- maybe one who looked like a comic, another who looked to be the sober one, another who was anxious.  I cannot really begin to understand what it was like for these men, to be away from the small towns and cities of the United States and, for the first time (and maybe last) be in a strange place over the sea, wondering if they would come home, wondering how their families were doing, awaking every day with the concerns of that day, just living one more day.

Looking at the sacrifices that were made then, both by these men and by everyone at home -- a nation completely given over to the war effort -- I wondered if, heaven forbid, we were called upon to rally as we did then, could we do it?  Do we still retain the national character to be able to meet so great a challenge?  It's not a political question, but a moral one really (I never comment on political issues here).  What kind of people are we?

As I walk around with my son, I'm strangely comforted too by the fact that enough people cared that these planes, that this part of aviation and wartime history be preserved, at great cost.  If we can do that, perhaps we can do whatever is asked of us.


Tick, Tick, Tick (Part VI): Leaving Time Behind

Clip_image002_22 As I approach my own end, which cannot now be long delayed, I find Jesus' outrageous claim to be, himself, the resurrection and the life, ever more captivating and meaningful.  Quite often, waking in the night as the old do, and feeling myself to be half out of my body, so that it is a mere chance whether I go back into it to live through another day, or fully disengage and make off; hovering there between life and death, seeing our dear earth with its scents and sounds and colors, as I have known and loved them. . . . ; recalling the golden hours of human love and human work, at the same time vouchsafed a glimpse of what lies ahead, Eternity Rising in the distance, a great expanse of ineffable light --- so placed, I hear Jesus' words ring triumphantly through the universe, spanning my two existences, the one in Time drawing to a close and the one in Eternity at its glorious beginning. . . . Yet in the limbo between living and dying, as the night clocks tick remorselessly on, and the black sky implacably shows not one single streak or scratch of gray, I hear those words: I am the resurrection and the life, and feel myself to be carried along on a great tide of joy and peace. 

(Malcolm Muggeridge, "Impending Resurrection," from Jesus: The Man Who Lives)

Because death is an inescapable fact, for man, animal, plant, and even (you might say) for the inanimate (which will not endure in its present form), I have to keep reminding myself, as did Muggeridge, that death is but a new beginning, that I and the ones I love will live on, and even the earth itself will not pass into nonexistence but be reformed and renewed, the atoms themselves being rearranged without the virus of sin, with nary a discordant note to mar the great sound of Creation.  That'll be the day.

I hope I can be like Muggeridge, who, knowing that his body was wasting away, could live in the light of the new beginning of Eternity, when he could, finally, bid farewell to the bounds of time and finally be timeless.  I hope so.

Out walking in the desert today, life and death are all around me.  The caucus of a 200 year old saguaro cactus lies on the desert floor, dead.  It began its life shortly after the birth of this country, was there before the white man came, and now will rot slowly into the desert floor.  I visited the remains of the Freeman homestead, settled in the 1930s, now but just foundations, and them too slowly being worn down by wind and water.  Mr. Freeman is dead now, and not much remains in Time of his efforts.

Time moves on, and yet from God's perspective, its duration is so minuscule as to almost be meaningless, insignificant.  That's what amazes me.  He could be so much more vast than all of space and time, and yet He, the Creator, the Limitless, could become the Limited, the Eternal become Temporal, to free us from Time.  The "night clocks tick remorselessly on," but He has come, He is the resurrection and the Life, and the tick, tick, tick will end not with silence but with the Great Song of the Day, when all creation is free from Time.


The Fate of Holy Fools

Jokerman"So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness." (Dorothy Sayers, "The Greatest Drama," from Spiritual Writings)

Jesus was, as Dorothy Sayers reminds us, certainly not a bore.  Certainly he was not a bore to the religionists of his day.  You don't kill people for being a bore, regardless of how intolerable they may be to you.  As Sayers reminds us, "we may call [the Gospel story] exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all."  This is anything but a dull story.  And yet, as she says, "we are apt to forget that the word Gospel ever meant anything so sensational.

In this culture of cynicism, of optionality (be who you want to be, have what you want), there often seems that there is not much to get upset about over the Gospel.  It is yet another option that you have as a consumer.  After all, you get to choose, right, just as you chose what shoes to buy, what TV program to watch, what role to play?  I wonder if we would recognize authentic Christianity if we saw it.  Would it not be the province of those, like Jesus, who stirred things up, who made people mad, who, for the sake of peace and quietness, would want to shut us up?  Given the institutional nature of Christian religion, it difficult to see how to be faithful in such a way that the Gospel is sensational.

To me it's like the conundrum of trying to be humble, and then realizing that in trying you are actually being prideful of your humility, which in itself is humbling, which again may cause pride anew, which. . . . well, you see the problem.  I want to be authentic, but in trying to be authentic, I actually end up adopting practices and habits which seemed authentic at one point but migrate to being superficial and rote practices.  At this point, the only thing I know to do is laugh.  It's a holy laugh, really, a laugh at our frailty, our silliness, our inability to live unto God but by His grace, and a laugh we have with God at our own expense.

Poor and needy sinners we are, poor laughing sinners, laughing ourselves right into the Kingdom.  Maybe then they put us away, so they can get some peace and quiet, because of our holy foolishness.  Not a bad way to go, really. Love God, but realize what a holy fool for Christ you are.  Now that may upset someone.  It should.  And it won't be the nonbelievers, either.


The Desert Southwest (II): Sky, Land, and People

Greetings2 Arising early today, we headed north from Tucson on the Pinal Pioneer Parkway, a two lane highway which follows the path of the early pioneers across a cactus-rich landscape, with the Catalina Mountains and then Tortilla Mountains on one side and Picacho Peak and the Picacho Mountains on the other.  It's a beautiful stretch of land, with a big sky stretching out on all sides around you as you drive north.  The only stop we made between Tucson and Florence was at a roadside memorial to Tom Mix.  Who you say?  I didn't know either, but apparently Tom Mix was called the "King of the Cowboys," appearing in over 300 cowboy movies in the early part of the Twentieth Century.  His career was over by 1940, before Roy Rogers even got a start.  A stone memorial marks the place where he lost control of his car and died.  Well, it's good to be remembered.

We passed Florence quickly, as it was host city to more than one penal institution.  Signs here say "Don't pick up hitchhikers," and we won't.  That's all I need: an escaped axe-murderer sharing the backseat with the kids.

From Florence we headed on to Apache Junction and the start of the Apache Trail, a sometimes harrowing two lane blacktop road into the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, which, after 10-15 miles of absolutely stunning scenery along the path of the Salt River, now dammed up in three places for hydroelectric power and reservoirs, comes to a gravel road, which lasts another 15 miles or so, ending at the massive Roosevelt Dam, a masonry dam built in the early years of the Twentieth Century.  What a feat!  Eight years.  Thousands of men employed.  41 men losing their lives.  Astounding to think about the difficulty of the labor.  And the Apache Trail had to be cut through the mountains first, following the route taken by Native Americans (likely the Apaches and others) before construction could even begin.  It's difficult to conceive of.  I came through here in the late Eighties and actually drove over the one lane on top of the bridge.  Now a beautiful single span bridge fords the lake.

A few miles from Roosevelt Dam, we stopped at Tonto National Monument, protected land which includes the cliff dwellings of the Salada tribe, which lived here over 600 years ago.  A short hike up the mountain leads to the lower cliff dwellings, which, though only part of what was built, are original, not a restoration like many such ruins.  From the safety of their dwellings in the cliffs, these agrarian people enjoyed a commanding view of the valley and the Salt River.  What made them abandon the dwellings is unclear.  It's quite amazing to stand where they would have stood 600 years ago, before any white man had come to America.  And these aboriginal peoples were not even the oldest in Arizona.  The Hohokam Indians lived and farmed along the Santa Cruz River near present-day Tucson as early as the 1st Century AD!

We returned to Tucson the fast yet still scenic route, in part down I-10.  We drove past but missed seeing the ruins at Casa Grande National Monument in Coolidge. Next time!  Returning, the light on the mountains was at its best, bringing out red and purple in the mountain rocks.

It was a great day.  The kids were most concerned about eating, as there wasn't much along the way.  But I think they learned something and certainly saw much of the grandeur of Creation on this foray into backroads Arizona.  God made a big land here in Arizona, and I can imagine that if you grew up here where you could see 50 miles from your back door, then coming east where you can't see past the next hill would be claustrophobic.  There's nothing quite so grand at home.


Digitized History: 1776 in Your Palm

1776 David McCollough's compelling recounting of the momentous events of 1776, in his book entitled 1776, is history at its best -- a stirring story of a man, George Washington, and the difficult events of 1776, events which included the loss of New York to the British, the near decimation of the rag-tag continental army, and yet the amazing crossing of the Delaware by Washington and his army and the routing of the Hessians at Trenton, the turning point of the War of Independence.  History can be dry; this book is far from dry.

It's also the first history I have read in digital form -- on my PDA.  I have mixed feelings about such a reading.  It has its advantage: I was able to read wherever I found myself, waiting in the doctor's office, in low light or no light, and without lugging a large hardback book around.  In other words, it is portable, much like MP3 files for the ubiquitous IPODs are portable.  But for me, this advantage is far outweighed by the disadvantages, of which there are at least three.

First, good books are like good friends: They're just good to have around.  Reading the words of of a disembodied 1776 on my PDA left me a bit empty.  I have no book to hold, nothing to see on my shelf, nothing to pull down and find a favorite passage in.  It's sort of like talking to a friend over the telephone line, when you'd far prefer to see them in person, embodied.  Just as you can touch the book, you can see the person, and even touch them.  The PDA words are the same, but they are not quite incarnate, and we long for the incarnate, tangible thing.

Second, it's very difficult to skim a digital book, or find a particular passage easily.  I remembered a particular passage about Washington the man, and yet I had great difficulty finding it.  With a book I could easily skim the pages and find the quote.

And finally, there is something about the very way the words appear on the printed page, the feel of paper in hand, and the substance of the book that makes it weightier, more substantial, and perhaps more significant.

I was glad to read 1776, but I'll also be glad to see it on my bookshelf.  I'm buying a copy, the real book this time.  I recommend it.


The Desert Southwest (I): Musing in the Garden

Greetings2 One of the first things you notice about the desert southwest is its expansiveness.  From any point in Tucson, where we are this week, I can see about 50 miles, from the Catalina Mountains on the North, to the Tucson Mountains on the West, to the Rincon Mountains on the East, to the distant Santa Rita Mountains on the South.  Getting lost is not a problem.  Just find the appropriate mountain range and head that way.  From where I stood this morning in the Catalina Foothills, I could see the entire city of over 1 million people spread out below me.  And if you get out in the desert, as when we drive south to Sonoita, Patagonia, or Tubac, or east to the Chihuahuas, the spaces become even greater, miles and miles of desert brush, mesquite trees, and the sentry-like Saguaro cacti.  It can feel lonely, be so empty.

I've wondered what this expansiveness does to the human psyche and often thought of Jesus in the wilderness, the aloneness that he probably felt in that time of testing.  It reminds me that aloneness doesn't mean the same thing as loneliness.  If you've been out in Creation alone, you may know what I mean.  It's really there that you can feel the presence of the Maker even more without the din of amusements and diversions, the noise of the media and the distractions of daily life.

Which all brings me to the sermon this morning at Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church.  Pastor Mark Roessler spoke on Psalm 39, and the paradox of David being so much in anguish and yet affirming his faith in God.  Somewhere in that sermon, I had my own sermon -- a tangent from the real sermon.  (Ever had that?)  Mark said that the word "amusement" really meant to engage in distraction, non-thinking activity, the opposite of what we are called to do, which is to muse over our lives, think on our lives and on God's creation, reflect, so as to glorify God with our lives.

There are plenty of distractions here in Tucson, but, being away from home, out in Creation every day, I'm better able to muse, to reflect on what God has put in front of me, to ask what it all means.

On my walk today, I saw seven desert rabbits cross my path, a multitude of birds, including the cactus wren, and a sheepish, guilty looking coyote which moved quickly across the path in front of me.  Likely, he'd been in the chef's garden here, helping himself.

I'm in the Garden too, helping myself to what the Chef has put here.  I just hope I can muse well, not be amused, as I enjoy it.


Joy in the Desert

Cottonwoodtreeinspring1943printc10091772 One of the first poems I wrote was written over 10 years ago on a trip with my wife to Tucson, Arizona.  We have regularly visited Southeastern Arizona for over 25 years, first when my wife's father had a second home there, and then, after his death, on our own.  Our children have grown up visiting the Sonaran Desert.  They know its plants and animals, its mountain ranges, its special places as well or better than the ones here in the Piedmont of North Carolina.  As do I.

Back then we had launched a newsletter at our church, and the pastor asked each elder to write a lead article on a fruit of the spirit.  I took joy.  I think I felt the first stirrings of creativity at that time, and I had the sense that nothing worth doing should be done without creativity.  I still believe that.  So, rather than a didactic essay on joy, I wrote a poem, I think.  I did not know how to write a poem then, and I do not think it very good, but, in honor of our travel to a place I love, here it is:

Joy in the Desert

It's not of my creation; I did nothing to earn it.
A single seed, dancing in the wind, fell by this stream -- coincidence to one,
     providence to another -- and my
Life began.

This is Joy --

To feel the Living Water in my wooden veins,
To know that even in the vapid, barren place outside, my roots are in the
Life Giver.

I bend, but I do not break.
I thirst, but I do not wilt.
I am gnawed at by pestilence, but I do not succumb.
I trust the Life Giver; my life flows out of the heart of Joy.

This is Joy --

To know that in the penumbra of my heaven-thrust arms, weaker ones, smaller
     ones, ones of little faith, will find strength and shelter from this desert curse;
Even to know that in my shade, weary travelers will be refreshed and set on
     their way, encouraged and emboldened;
To know that my life has significance in this mystery of life.
Even to know that one day I'll know the legacy of Joy I leave as I celebrate
     many seasons of unfurled offspring -- raindrops to quench an arid land and
     sun-warped and parched creatures.

I live Joy.  I am in Joy.  To live as His creation is Joy.  Not always felt, but fast-
     known at my core this Joy -- even in this land of fearsome extremes.

Yes, this is Joy. . .

It's not of my creation; I did nothing to earn it.
It comes when it comes.

What a mystery this Joy.
Surely the Ancient Song is true: We will go out in Joy and be led forth in peace,
     the mountains and the hills will burst forth in song before you, and we

Trees will clap hands in Joy and dance before You.

(inspired by the Arizona Cottonwood tree; painting by Georgia O'Keeffe)

OK, so like I said, it was my first try at a poem!  I'll be keeping a bit of a travelogue in the next week about Arizona and its places.  No poems.  Promise.  Stay tuned.


Beyond the Walls of This World

InmyfathershouseI just returned from a memorial service for a friend's father.  Now, there was a time when I avoided funerals or disliked going, I suppose because they reminded me of some sad truths --- that people get old and die, that young lives are tragically struck down before much living at all had occurred, that even babies sometimes die.  I think that was back when I no longer believed fairy tales, even though I might have said I did.

Now I am not reluctant to go to funerals for believers because now I can come as a child, hearing the fairy tale of life after death, and knowing that this is true.  I look around at people and think to myself, "Are you hearing what the man is saying?  Are you listening?  Isn't this the wildest thing you ever heard? Can this really be true?  Do people live on, forever?"  I think sometimes we lose our sense of wonder at the Gospel, at its audacity.

Sitting there, I'm reminded once again of Frederick Buechner's tripartite summation of the Gospel as tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale.  A funeral, a death, is tragic because but for sin it need not have been.  The man who died -- all men who die -- die as sinners, and die they do though that was not the plan.  But the comedy is the amazing comedy of grace, that sin and its curse is undone, that the dead in Christ do not have their sin counted against them.  It's the ultimate Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card.  But best of all is the fairy tale:  We live on.  This man lives on even now, though he now looks mighty dead.  And he lives on in a state unimaginable, truly a fairy tale to our imagination.

J.R.R. Tolkien says that the fairy tale "does not deny the existence of. . . sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of the deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat. . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief."  As Buechner says, "Good and evil meet and do battle in the fairy-tale world much as they meet and do battle in our world, but in fairy tales the good live happily ever after. That is the major difference.  So great is the power of magic that even the less-than-good live happily ever after."

So that's how it is, isn't it?  We believe a true fairy tale.  Dorothy did go to Oz and back.  Mary Poppins did come to the children and bring her own magic into their lives.  A door in a wardrobe does lead out beyond the walls of this world.  Winter is gone.  Spring has come.  And the man who died and who we remember today?  He lives on -- forever.

Now that's a fairy tale.

(*The painting utilized is called "In My Father's House," by artist Carol Bomer.  See more of her work here.  The Buechner quote is from his book, "Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale.")


The Fate of Africa (Part II): Men Who Play God

Africa I am only 186 pages through Martin Meredith's massive 706 page history of Africa's last 50 years but already the weight of sin and its consequences in that far-off land lays heavy on my heart.  It is a story of dreams frustrated, promises broken, greed and pride run amok -- not by the white man (at least not in these years), but mostly by Africans.  That is what is so sad.

The Fate of Africa is, thank goodness, readable and engaging history, and it's a good thing, as otherwise I would not have the heart to bear with it.  I'm tempted to read the last chapter, hoping that the author will offer a twelve step program for a renewal of Africa, but I know better than to think there is any panacea.  The book is subtitled From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair, so that summarizes where this is going.  There is hope, but it has to be rooted in changed hearts, in revival and then cultural reformation, and that takes a Transcendent work.

Thus far, one chapter in the book brought into sharp relief how pride and greed have robbed the new African countries of public "servants," civic minded men and women who truly seek to better their countries, serving rather than lording it over their people.  The founding fathers of the newly independent African countries, almost to the man, used their fame and prestige to swiftly consolidate control.  As Meredith notes, "[f]rom the outset, most sought a monopoly of power; most established a system of personal rule and encouraged personality cults."  Probably the epitome of this was Ghana's Kwane Nkrumah, whose aspiration was to to create a united Africa as powerful as the United States with himself as ruler.  His egoism even led him to create an official ideology, calling it Nkrumahism.  He thought himself to possess unique talents and ability  Like Nasser in Egypt, Nkrumah ruled by decree; for all intents and purposes, these men were the Government in their domain.  They set themselves up as God.

Nkrumah's story is repeated in country after country.  One-party legislative systems are favored; minority parties are banned or, even worse, have their leaders imprisoned, all in the name of unity.  They came to power promising to uphold constitutions, only to abolish them or amend them such that they had no meaning.  Patronage was used to ensure loyalty; bribery and corruption became the norm for behavior.  Within a year of independence, most of these one-party dictatorships utilized methods even in excess of those employed by the colonial powers to maintain order -- arrests, detention, torture, killings --- meanwhile lavishly displaying their own wealth while most of their countrymen lived in grinding and deepening poverty.  Then, as corruption increased and unrest grew, military interventions became commonplace.  Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is only the latest example of this system of dictatorial rule and oppression --- a man who has single-handedly turned the breadbasket of Africa into a food importer.

All of this is like a broken record, I know.  And it makes me wonder: given the vast missionary enterprise, the Christianizing of much of Africa, why did all this happen?  Why so little change?  You even see the perversion of Christian belief, as, for example, in Nigeria's Lord's Liberation Army who have the goal of imposing a ten-commandment theocracy on Nigeria, who utilize young boys as soldiers, who wantonly kill women and children.  Why?  Why so little impact?

I'll keep reading.  I know there is hope.  I know there are pockets of peace and moderate tranquility in Africa.  There are people of peace.  I'm hoping to read about some of them --- soon.


Tick, Tick, Tick (Part V): Time Dilation Theory

Clip_image002_21 Just think about time a bit, and it begins to get very weird.  For example, where did yesterday go, really?  Is it still there or so or did it simply evaporate when time moved on?  This is the kind of weirdness that has produced multiple plots for sci-fi movies (Back to the Future, or The Philadelphia Experiment, to name a few), and every sci-fi series, from the various Star Trek series to Stargate SG-1, has had episodes devoted to time travel or exploring the theoretical multiple and parallel dimensions in time.  It apparently fascinates us.  Perhaps it is because we earnestly desire to be in control (rather than God), so that if we can control time, that is, alter time to fix some current injustice, we can make our lives better.  But then multiple other movies have demonstrated what a mess we could make of things.

I'm as fascinated as the next person with time, but I'm not as interested in time travel (what a mess that would be) but in understanding how as a Christian I am to view time, that is, how I can have something of God's perspective on time.  From what I know of it, I think what's called time dilation theory helps us understand a Godly perspective on time.

The best example utilized to demonstrate this theory goes like this:  Imagine you're standing outside looking up on a starry night and a rocket ship races across the sky.  Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity says that the time you measure for events occurring on the rocket ship happens more slowly than events measured by the astronaut.  In other words, time dilates, or "expands," form your point of view on the Earth.  Theoretically, at a certain speed. . . hmmm. . . lets say the speed of light (670,616,629 mph), for every one second on the ship 10 seconds may pass on Earth.  If, say, you could move inconceivably fast, faster than the speed of light, perhaps one second could equal a lifetime on Earth, maybe more.

That may be imperfect and mighty speculative, and yet it may be a helpful way to see how God views us and time.  He is timeless, that is, outside of time, eternal.  He looks at the whole life of the universe much as we might look at a second in time.  And yet, it was a second that mattered to Him.  When you are eternal, when you are outside of time, not time-bound, your perspective has to be different.

I think the closer we walk with God, the richer our communion with Him, the the less chronos time matters because we see it more from the Timemaker's perspective, just a fleeting second.  What matters is kairos time, meaning how did we live that second.  Viewed from God's perspective, yesterday folds into today and tomorrow, and perhaps that explains the odd sensation I have at times that I'm really not far away from where I was 30 years ago, if I could walk there.

Like I said, think on this much and it begins to mess with your mind.


Tick, Tick, Tick (Part IV): Velocity

P2hands60 Velocity
(A Poem About Chronos Time)

At night
I know her passing,
a train of images
and melancholy dreams.
Sometimes slow:
     waiting for release from loss
     for a child to be born
     suffering to pass
     even love.
But these days
what I feel,
dizzying and divine,
is
her
velocity.

Pblue Remember
that time
we drank deeply
of each
liquid word,
savoring their
rich and potent
taste, warming
our souls-grown-cold, until
drunk on this new wine
I danced
my laughing audience
into the New Year?, or

That other time,
lethargic and
dazed, when we
shuffled quietly
hopefully
thankfully
into that (please God)
New Year come?

P2handsb_1 It was your
mother who said that
"travel is broadening,"
(and she knew), but
I know too that
"travel is deepening"
as we run
these grace-laid
tracks.

I rewind
replay
those word-
pictures now,
the happy-sad
soundtrack, loud
enough to wake the
living, to awaken
me.  I grasp
treasures in
her train while I
temeriously

Pretend I can
thrust my hand
into her passing,
catch the hem of her
cloak, slowing her
onward rush, only to
pull back, awed and
hushed by her
luminosity.

Pchicago3So I wait,
silent,
clock tick-tocking
on my right,
life breathing
on my left,
watching
listening
smelling the
holy smoke
certain fire
and clamor of her

l o  c   o    m     o      t       i        o         n. . . .

[The poetry is my creation, but I am thankful for the use of the paintings of Mark Dahle.  The paintings with hands seemd to fit the lines "Pretend I can/ thrust my hand/ into her passing. . .," which suggests the possibility that we can sometimes slow down Time's velocity by holding on to some moment, at least for a time.  (Actually the two hands paintings were inspired by Mother Teresa, says Mark.) The last painting seemd to suggest the last passage in the poem, the part about "smoke. . . fire. . .clamor." (And for Mark, it's about Creation.)  You can see more of and purchase prints of Mark's work here.  And if you're wondering why the poem is strung out like it is, it's a device to suggest movement, or velocity, the passage of Time.]


The Frustration of Frustration

Clip_image002_20 At 14, life can be so frustrating.  My son said to me today, "I'm sick of all this.  All this useless homework about irrelevant stuff.  You spend the first part of your life in school all day, in boring courses, and then doing homework at home, with no time to do what you want to do.  Then you have to get a job, work long hours, and you have bills to pay and all those responsibilities.  Then you end up in an old folks home eating jello and working Sudoku puzzles all day.  What's the use?"  Well, by the end of that, we were both laughing, at least.  And yet, there is some truth in what he says.

I have been going to work at the same place for 22 years.  Most weekdays I get up, follow the same routines, drive the same roads, park the car, walk in the door, hit the elevator button, step off on my floor, and go in my office, where I sit.  Granted some things change.  I'm older.  My secretary of 22 years is older.  There is a computer on my desk now (none of us used to have PCs.)  But, really, there is a sameness, a tiresomeness about it all.  In fact, sometimes driving in to work I'm momentarily overcome by the futility of it all.  Do you know the feeling?

So I know exactly what my son is talking about, and I know that you do too.  That feeling is universal.  Things are not what they should be.  Everything is touched by abnormality, warped, and subjected to frustration.

Paul says "the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:19).  So, Paul felt it too, this winding down of things, this entropy, the sense of futility.  So did Solomon.  "Meaningless, meaningless!," says the Teacher.  "All is meaningless!" (Eccl. 12:8).

A few months ago I visited my childhood suburban home for the first time in a long time.  That sense of futility came over me again.  The houses were smaller and less well-maintained.  The yards were somewhat unkempt.  The park was overgrown with weeds.  There were cracks in the asphalt on the street.  Order to disorder.

All around us are the effects of the Fall.  And we can't help but feel it.  And yet, as we reminded our son (and remind ourselves), there's more to it.  There's a reverse entropy at work: Evil may flourish for a time and things may seem futile at times, but the Kingdom is growing, all our actions have a purpose, everything matters.  God has entered space and time and is undoing the curse.

Paul, again, went on to say to the Colossians this time that "God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Col. 1:20).  Reconciliation is cosmic in scope.  Somehow, God is restoring everything, making everything new.  Everything is being redeemed, or bought back, restored to its rightful owner, made into what it was intended to be, including us.

"Grief is great, Son of Adam," says Aslan to the child-king Peter.  Grief is great.  There is futility.  There is toil.  But, as I remind my son (and myself), there is a Deeper Magic at work.  Sad things will be undone.  Our labor will not always be toil and, as Francis Schaeffer often reminded his audience, there can be substantial healing (or redeeming of our labor) now.  Soon, and very soon Creation's frustration will be frustrated.


The Colors Green and Blue

Pine_treeLying on my back today in my back yard, looking up at the pleasing green of the pines against the blue sky, a question popped into my head:  Why does the juxtaposition of the colors green and blue, or more broadly, the colors in the natural world around me -- mostly brown, green, and blue -- create such a pleasurable feeling?  I have to think that a red sky and orange trees would not create the same sensation.

I can put what I know about color and our perception of it in a thimble, but I know a few things. Newton observed that color is not inherent in an object but, rather, the surface of an object absorbs some colors in the spectrum and reflects others.  Thus, what we perceive is largely a result of the composition of an object.  So, color is inherent in the way things were created.  It need not have been.  But it is.  Why?

It's also well-known that color influences mood and feeling in common experience.  Though human emotions are unstable and variable, it is also accepted that there are a number of general and universal reactions to color, that is, some things are true at substantially all times, in all places, and among all people.  Those are things we might even call natural laws or creation ordinances, things inherent in the way God made the world (though I am not sure if theologians have ever used these words in this way).

But back to the trees and the sky.  Psychologists know that, broadly speaking, the "cool" colors --  blue and green, for example -- tend to evoke a calming effect, while "warm" colors -- red and orange, for example -- tend to excite.  (One researcher notes that people will gamble more and place riskier bets if seated under red lights as opposed to blue ones.  Thus, Las Vegas is full of red neon lights.)  Thus the green of the pine needles and the blue of the sky have a calming effect on me, a pleasing, soothing effect.  No doubt you know what I mean.  It's a universal feeling.

Then I thought of Psalm 19.  The Psalmist says "The heavens declare the glory of God;/ the skies proclaim the work of his hands./ Day after day they pour forth speech;/ night after night they display knowledge./ There is no speech or language/ where their voice is not heard./ Their voice goes out into all the earth,/ their words to the end of the world."  The Creation is pouring forth speech.

At that thought I sat up and asked my wife what she thought God was trying to tell us by making the sky blue and the leaves and pine needles green.  She said I had too much time on my hands.  Maybe so, but I think what He is saying is something like this: "Do not be troubled.  Fear not. Peace be with you."

The late Rich Mullins said it best in a song called "The Color Green," from his album entitled A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band:  "Look down upon this winter wheat/ and be glad that you have made/ Blue for the sky and the color/ green that fills Your fields/ with praise."  He has to be glad, but I'm glad too.

There are no accidents in nature.  The sky is blue for a reason.  The leaves and pine needles are green for a purpose.  And the feeling they evoke is no accident either.

Peace be with you, they say.


Wendell Berry's Rootedness

FidelityAuthor Wendell Berry knows a place like rural Kentucky the way you can only know a place if you live there, work there, and breathe there.  And he does.

In Fidelity, Berry collects five short stories, with overlapping characters, all set in in his fictional but very real Kentucky home.  They may be short stories, but the characters are full-blown and the setting warmly and very realistically described, so much so that in a few short pages I found myself emotionally invested in the story much as one might in a great novel.

In the longest of the stories by far, "Fidelity," Berry is at his best, describing the family and friends of the elderly and dying Burley Coulter and their complicity in wresting him from a hospital where he lay dying poorly, in a strange place, hooked up to machines, so that he could die in peace, in natural surroundings.  It's a story about what it means to live and die, and die well.

But my favorite story is  a much shorter one, "Making It Home," about the homecoming of Arthur Rowanberry from WWII to his native Kentucky home, remembering all the while, wondering if and how things had changed (and how he himself had changed).  It has a wonderful ending which calls to mind our own great Homecoming one day, when Christ welcomes us into His Heaven.

Wendell Berry is a great writer.  Why?  Because his stories are rich with his love for the land where he lives and for its people.  He has lived in the Kentucky River region of Kentucky for 30 years, where he and his family farm 75 acres of land.  He knows it.  He is rooted in a singular place like not too many Americans are anymore.  He's a great reminder to me to love the place where I am, right down to the dirt I stand on.

I'm adding Fidelity to my list of recommended books.  It's that good.


Quod-li-bet: Whatever (I)

Thinker Some items to consider:

  • One of the teachers at my children's school, Craig Doerksen, has migrated to Eugene, Oregon, where he is now the Director at Blue Tower Arts Center, an artist-in-residence program which "encourages, educates, and guides artists who desire to explore the claims and relevancy of Christianity in the vital calling of art production as they understand, respond and contribute to our contemporary world."  Most interesting to me is their one-year informal study program for artists beginning in Fall 2006.  Both Craig and co-founder Wesley Hurd have much to offer, and I encourage you to check out their website and support this much needed work.
  • If you recall my post of on "The Reformation of Athletics"(Feb. 21, 2006) you might check out this article by Dr. Peter Enns on "Loving Christ While I Cheer for the Yankees."  Enns explores why we love sports so much and how to know when our love for them has gone too far.  He ends with a commendable point: "As Christians we need to cultivate an attitude of theological reflection about those very things that fill up our daily hours [like sports].  Very often it is the mundane, everyday things that most persistently -- and subtly -- affect us in our Christian walk, for good or ill."
  • If you'd like to do something constructive about the passing of the CD or long form album as an art form (see my post of January 12, 2006), visit my friend Tony Shore's website Save the CD and purchase a cool t-shirt.  Tony has posted articles regarding the histroy of the CD, why its format should be preserved in some way, and more.  It's a cool site, a labor of love, and your help getting the word out about it and purchasing a t-shirt will help.
  • Finally, and along the lines of reflecting theologically about everything, an article by Christian mathematician Charles Edward White helps us do so about numbers in an article called "God By the Numbers."  many Christian mathematicians think that numbers point to God, specifically, three numbers: 1 in 10 to the 10 to the 123; 1 in 10 to the 162; and finally, Euler's number, which is "e" to the "ni."  Is that a provocative enough statement?  Wondering what all this means?  That's a bit more sophisticated than my conclusion that the only two numbers that meant anything before Creation were 1 and 3.  If you're like me, you don't reflect theologically on numbers that much.  Enns makes me think we should.

Do you think I think about such things while I'm out walking?  Not much, really.  It's usually less profound, like "Did I eat at Taco Bell twice yesterday?" I'm serious.


Telling the Truth

Nnnnnnnnn [The following talk was given as a challenge as we ordained a pastor at our church.  I don't think it's just a challenge for pastors, but, in some sense, for all of us.  You can read the entire challenge here.]

As a pastor, there are many challenges that face you.  I can only imagine what some of them are, or how they feel to you.  You see, we expect so much sometimes.  We expect that you be an exemplary husband and father , a Bible scholar, an effective counselor, a prayer warrior, a good communicator, and an able administrator.  Those are all challenges, and not bad challenges, but I expect that they are not where you need to focus your attention.  They are not the main challenge.

The main challenge, it seems to me, is to tell the Truth.  That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? So simple, that it almost goes without saying.  And yet, it’s not so easy to tell the truth.

Jesus says “I am the truth.”  He also prefaces what he will say on so many occasions with the phrase “I tell you the truth.”  So the truth is both the object of and subject of our faith.   The truth matters.

As Frederick Buechner says, the truth of the gospel is tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale – I’ll admit, funny words to hear used of the Gospel.  It’s tragedy because it tells us that the world is fallen, that we are fallen, that even on our best of days, we are sinful through and through.  Sometimes we can pretend that the world isn’t so bad, that we aren’t so bad, at least not relative to most.  You have the unenviable challenge of reminding us that yes, the world is as bad as we could have thought, that we are sinful, even when we think our motives are pure.  It’s not pleasant, it won’t make you popular, but it is necessary to say, because the Gospel has to be bad news before it is good news.  We have to be shaken.

But you can’t leave us there.  You also have the pleasant task of declaring the comedy of the gospel.  That’s not a “ha, ha” kind of comedy, but it’s the amazing grace of a Creator who actually condescended to live among his creations, the one who undoes the curse of sin every day.  It’s comic because it’s so unforeseeable.  It’s like Sarah laughing when she bore Issac in her old age.  She laughed at the supernatural work of grace in her life.  You have the joy of reminding us that there is no sin we can’t be saved from, no situation in which a glimpse of God’s incredible grace can’t be seen.

But better yet, you have the challenge of telling us about the fairy tale the Gospel is, and by that, Buechner didn’t mean it was a fairy-tale but that it is like a fairy tale in that it tells us of a magical place where right will prevail and where we will all live happily ever after.  It gives us a glimpse of Joy, of Home, of where we really belong and where we really long for.  You have the challenge of holding out that hope to us, because we need that hope, because no matter how we see grace breaking into our tragic world we need to be reminded that we live in the shadow of Reality, of Heaven.  Real life is yet to come.

You tell us the truth then – the whole truth and nothing but the truth – the gospel as tragedy, as comedy, and as fairy tale. . . .[more]


My Mad Girlfriend

Brightasyou Oh, I couldn't resist using that as the title of this post, as "My Mad Girlfriend" is my favorite song off Jason Harrod's 2005 release entitled Bright As YouIt has great lines like "My mad girl she's so pissed off/ You know she gonna tear it up/ Better watch out because she gonna go off/ But when I touch her, she feels so soft/ My mad girlfriend is coming over tonight."  But more than that, it has a great rocking beat that moves it along like most everything on this great record.  That's attributable both to great songwriting and to the great production by the multi-talented Phil Madeira and the musicians, like Kenny Meeks, that he brought to the sessions.

I became an instant fan of Jason's when I bought his 1991 release, Dreams of the Color BlindAt the time he was a part of a duo, Harrod and Funck, with fellow Wheaton College graduate Brian Funck.  I was amazed by Dreams -- the lyrical quality, the harmonies, and the the most unique sound.  I had not heard of them then but bought the record because it was produced by the (very) late and great Mark Heard.  The guys had several more records and toured widely, particularly in the Boston area, where they settled.  But ultimately, they amicably parted ways.  Jason went on to a promising solo debut in 2000 with Living in Skin, a nice folksy record, but this new release is tweaked up and hotter than anything he has done before.

Honestly, I don't mean to gush, but Bright As You doesn't have a single throwaway track (to be crass about it).  From the driving acoustic rock of "The Sun Is Up" to the bluesy "Kickin' Mule" to the pumping sound of "When I Fly Away," Harrod rocks us.  The production is solid, just what you would expect from veteran Phil Madeira.  By the time you get to the eighth track, where many albums fizzle out or insert their more "challenging" songs, we hear the best song here: "My Mad Girlfriend."

Lyrically, Harrod is often profound, sometimes funny, and never flat.  He sings "When I fly away, I won't be afraid/ When I fly away, I will be re-made," a song about heaven, as well as songs about the more mundane facts of existence ("When I smoke the first one/ there's nothing I can't do/ When I smoke the last/ I swear I'm through).  There are the lows ("What's happening?/ A long time ago/ I used to be the next big thing/ Four o'clock in the morning/ and I'm small/ Night, fall on me") and the high of "Mad Girlfriend" (" I think she might just be bad for my health/ But she's good, but she's good, but she's good for my head.")

So, that's enough effuse praise, right?  Two minor, petty complaints:  First, where's the background vocals? Jason has a great voice, but on several songs it would have been good to hear a harmonizing voice.  (Of course, maybe I just miss Brian Funck and need to get over it.)  Also, "Voyeurs" is a great pop-jazz tune, complete with saxophone, very reminiscent of Kenny Rankin, but it really doesn't belong on this record.  (It was produced separately, by Joshua Stamper.)  But these are quibbles.  This is a fine record, one of which Jason Harrod can be proud.  I recommend it.


Tick, Tick, Tick (Part Three): Stepping Outside of Time

Clip_image002_19 The Greek word chronos means "time" in a quantitative sense, chronological time, time that you can divide into minutes and years, time as duration.  It is the sense we mean when we say, "What time is it?" or "How much time do I have?" or "Time like an ever flowing stream," in one of the hymns that we sing.  But in Greek there is also the word kairos, which means "time" in a qualitative sense --- not the kind that a clock measures but time that cannot be measured at all, time that is characterized by what happens in it.  Kairos time is the kind that you mean when you say "the time is ripe" to do something, "It's time to tell the truth," a truth-telling kind of time.  Or "I had a good time" --- the time had something about it that made me glad.  The ancient poet who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes was using time in a kairos sense when he wrote of a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to keep silence and a time to speak.

-- Frederick Buechner, from The Sacred Journey

At the end of chronos time, when the Creator of Time pulls the plug on all clocks, when their hands stop, it'll be just kairos time, all the time, if we can even speak in that manner of time, if the word even means anything then.

I had some inkling of this when I spent three weeks on safari in East Africa almost 20 years ago.  We moved from tented camp to tented camp, in places whose names sounded old and magical, places like Samburu, Naivasha, Aruba, Manyara, Aberdare, and Masai Mara, places where time was measured, if at all, only just by when the sun came up and when it set, their seasons by when the rains came and when they stopped.  No watch or clock was necessary.  It took perhaps a week to settle into it, to relax, to stop asking if it was "time" for this or that.  Life moved by the sun, not by a machine that incessantly tick-tocked off our lives.

But that's vacation, and unreality, right?  How do you become unbound by time in the here and now, in the bills and laundry and projects, the home improvements and committee meetings and emails to answer?  There is never enough chronos time to do it all, to get ahead of things, to conquer the to-do list, is there?

I can only think of one way: drawing close to Jesus, like Mary did when, acting in a highly impractical manner (according to Martha) she just sat at Jesus's feet and listened, like she had all the time in the world.  Haven't we got all the time (kairos) in the world to wait on Jesus?  It's easy for me to pay homage to the Mary/Martha distinction, but the question is whether I really believe it.

Jesus says "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . If the son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:31, 36).  There is a way we escape chronos time when we stay close to Jesus.  Why?  Because even though he was in time (in his humanity) he was also outside of time (in his divinity), and we can know that perspective, however imperfectly, by staying close to him.

Will we then get it all done?  Nope.  But it won't matter.  It can wait. 

Now, do I really believe this?  I want to.


Tick Tick Tick (Part Two): The City of No Clocks

Oldman It strikes me that we don't give much consideration to how long some of our earliest ancestors lived and what that "looked like."  Take the oldest recorded ancestor, Methuselah, who lived 969 years, just short of 1000.  Now that's a lot of clocks to punch, football games to watch, and bad investments to make.  Even Man One, Adam, lived 930 years.  Imagine that -- he had at least 800 years, and likely more, just to remember that tragic mistake he made with the apple.  After Seth was born at 130, what did he do for the next 800 years?  For you women, let's make this a bit more real:  at 930 years for Adam, that's 1,018,350 meals to prepare and a whole lot of laundry to wash and hang on the line.

I'm pondering all this aloud on the way to church tonight, and I'd have to say no one is really interested in what Adam was doing all those years.  One member of the family is doing Bible study, one is doing homework, and one is drinking ginger ale and practicing burping.  They are not impressed.

Nevertheless, I think there's something to learn here about the way we should view time.  Just for a moment, consider what it might be like to live 969 years like Methuselah.  Lots of things that seem so important become a lot less time-sensitive.  Did you fix the toilet, honey?  Nope, I'll get to it, next year maybe, well, what the heck, maybe in a few years.  We've got plenty of time, right?

You think we should start a college fund for Seth?  Nope.  Plenty of time to think about that.  Suspect he won't leave and cleave for awhile yet, maybe be around here until he's at least 75 or so.  Plenty of time to do that, you know.  Let the boy be a kid for a while, like maybe a few decades at least.

Really, when you live 969 years, or maybe more, you begin to have some sense (in a crude way, of course) of what eternity might feel like.  There is less urgency.  Less hastening to do it all.  When Seth needs a good father-son chat, well drop the staff where it is and listen for a few hours, you know. That's a kairos moment -- quality time.  There's time to take a good look at things too, to reflect on God's purposes in the world, to remember what matters, to listen for God's voice.  Lived unto God, life could be slower and more gracious an existence, with plenty of time to settle in God's goodness.

Of course, because of the fateful choice of Adam, a long life not lived unto God can be, at its worse, 969 years to do evil, to cheat, and lie, and steal, and worse, or, at very least, it could be a long, seemingly unending, and tiresome existence.  You wonder how many took their own lives rather than live out their days in such unyielding nihilism.  No wonder God limited our days to 120 years.

I think it's when we have a kairos moment that we step outside of time for a moment.  Time stays still in pure joy.  Like the first time I heard "Good Vibrations" or "Roundabout."  I had to remind myself to breathe.  Living as long as they did, maybe Methuselah, Adam, or Enoch (for sure) knew that more than me, that sense of timelessness, that knowing life from the standpoint of the Creator of time for just a moment, a breath.

There's a short story by Wendell Berry called "Making It Home," featured in his book entitled Fidelity: Five Stories.  A young soldier, Art Rowanberry, is returning home from the Great War to his home in the hills of Kentucky, pondering all he had seen as well as what he might find at home.  Coming over the last hill, he sees his father and brother plowing the field, and they finally see him too.  After a few hand shakes and repeated "Well now"s from his father, there is this:

And then he heard his father's voice riding up in his throat as he had never heard it, and he saw that his father had turned to the boy and was speaking to him:

"Honey, run yonder to the house.  Tell your granny to set on another plate.  For we have our own that was gone and has come again.

Patclock_1 Don't you know that time stopped right then for Early Rowanberry, seeing his son he thought was dead?  Don't you know that time was irrelevant then?

So it is for us.  When we get to the City of No Clocks, He will stop whatever He is doing, look long at us, and then turn to those standing nearby and say "Set another place at the table.  Tell everyone he's Home.  For we have our own that was gone and has come again."

[For Part 1 of "Tick, Tick, Tick," see Post of March 11, 2006.]


Choice Quotes

Buechner The grace of God means something like: Here is your life.  You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid. I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.  I love you.

Theology is the study of God and his ways.  For all we know, dung beetles may study man and his ways and call it humanology.  If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated.  One hopes that God feels likewise.

How do I happen to believe in God?  I will give one more answer which can be stated briefly.  Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots.  After awhile, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot.  And after awhile more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.

--- Frederick Buechner


Tick Tick Tick (Part One): Paradise Lost

Clip_image002_18Childhood's time is Adam and Eve's time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after.  It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that time on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted somewhere in the depths of them by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives. (Frederick Buechner)

Once upon a time, there was no time, at least none that mattered.  There was no time to waste, no time to do, no time to keep, not even any making time.  When you live forever, time is irrelevant.  It is childhood, the original childhood.

Unless you become like children, humbling yourselves, Jesus said, you will not see the Kingdom of God.  And yet it's difficult to come like a child, to live life unto God like a child.  As adults, we major in chronos time, the tick tick tick time, the steady march of one day to the next, keeping time, making good use of time, desperately trying to do it all.

In contrast, children know little of chronos time and much of kairos time, that sense of time standing still.  That time is like the long seemingly infinite landscape of Summer that lay before you when the last school bell rung and you were sprung from your seat in grammar school.  A lifetime lay before us then.  No, more than a life-time.  (See how time is always slipping into the discussion?)  Just life.  That's how long Summer seemed.

And it wasn't just Summer.  Why, even just one day could seem like forever then.  There was Chuck and John and Bobby, and a creek to catch tadpoles in, water to wade in, a tunnel under the bridge to explore.  There were ramshackle forts built from scrap wood, long dreamlike discussions about imaginary people and worlds, and explorations of other people's backyards.  Maybe, just maybe, the sun stood still, then, or at least slowed down its movement so we could play.  Even to say that was then and this is now is only to remind me of chronos time; I would never have thought then of time passing.  Time did not pass.  Time was not.

It's a difficult feeling to recapture, and I'm not sure we can get there from here, that is, we cannot deliberately manufacture that feeling of timelessness.  It comes by grace.  You might know it in a moment of sweet fellowship or prayer with other believers, or playing competitive sports, or listening to a great piece of music.  Or when my son or daughter were born, and there was only now.

Just for a moment, heaven opens.  And it's all kairos.  And we're reminded --- we'll get there yet.  It'll be the Kingdom of God at play, and the Day will never end.  Soon.


When Sad Things Come Untrue

Clip_image002_17The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither them?  I cannot say.


The hobbit Bilbo Baggins has left his home again, singing a bit of this song as he goes, waving farewell to Gandalf the wizard, leaving young Frodo Baggins, his adopted son, with a perilous ring of great power.

It's a story about a long, long journey, and one we all know by now.  Frodo Baggins has possession of a golden ring that is sought after by Sauron, the Dark Lord, and one who must represent Satan.  The ring gives great power, but anyone who uses it will ultimately be corrupted by its power.  Only Frodo, a small hobbit, can be entrusted with it.  He's never even left the Shire, and yet he is set on a journey across the known world to destroy the ring by casting it into a volcano in Mordor, the realm of Sauron.  He knows the purpose of his journey, and yet he knows not what he will face along the way.

We are also on a journey.  Scripture so often refers to our lives as a "walk."  We are told to walk in His ways, that the Word is a lamp unto our feet (which are doing what? but walking).   The Apostle Paul tells us to "press on toward the goal to win the prize to which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14).  We are moving.  We have a goal.  There is no standing still.

What is it we are moving toward?  What is it that we seek?  C.S. Lewis says it best: We want to emerge from the shadowlands and see all Creation set right.  We want to get Home.  We want everything to be as God intended.   We want to be with the One who loves us, Jesus.  Don't we all know this longing?

Even on the best of days, I know this to be the case.  I look in on my children, sleeping peaceably in their beds.  The sight fills me with joy, but it's a joy mixed with sorrow --- knowing that they will grow up and leave, that they too will face great difficulties in life, including disappointments and sorrow.  Or I've had a particularly golden moment, or hour, or day, and I think "it doesn't get any better than this," and then some bit of sadness intrudes and I realize that every joy is mixed with sorrow.  All is not well with the world.

Look at what lies at the end of our Road.  The "now" is a dress rehearsal for the great play that goes on forever --- a time when we know Christ face to face, when all pretenses, hypocrisy, vain conceit, and selfish ambition are gone, when all that is deformed is reformed.

There is a beautiful picture of this End in the concluding chapters of the Lord of the Rings, one evocative of the visions at the end of revelation:

Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight.  "Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?" he said.

But Sam lay back, and stared with an open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer.  At last he gasped: "Gandalf!  I thought you were dead!  But then I thought I was dead myself.  Is everything sad going to come untrue?  What's happening to the world?"

"A great shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.  It fell upon his ears like the echos of all the joys he had ever known.  But he himself burst into tears.  Them, as sweet rain will pass down a wind of Spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.

"How do I feel?" he cried.  "Well, I don't know how to say it.  I feel, I feel" --- he waved his arms in the air --- "I feel like spring after winter, and the sun on leaves, and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!"

"The King has tended you, and now he awaits you.  You shall eat and drink with hi,  When you are ready I will lead you to him."

And when Sam heard that he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried:  "O great glory and splendor!  And all my wishes have come true!"  And then he wept.

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the mistrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. . . and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

Wow.  It's no mistake that Heaven is described as the Holy City --- cities are places of lots of people.  The people of God will be with God and with each other in a way we cannot fully appreciate now.

Much is broken. Much needs healing.

Is everything sad going to come untrue?  Yes, thank God, yes.

[Adapted from a talk entitled Brotherhood: The Fellowship of the Cross, available in full here.]


Old Dogs

Clip_image002_14 If you are a dog lover, read on.  If not, stop here. 

I recently was re-reading a book of poetry by Kelly Cherry called God's Loud Hand.  I have read through this short volume of poems on more than one occasion, enjoying some of the theological poems, disliking others, and puzzled by even others.  In the midst of this, I simply overlooked one poem that was non-intellectual (I think), one about an old dog named Work.  It reminded me of one of my own poems about our old and now departed dog, Faith.  So, here's to Work and Faith:

Work

The old dog, Work, one eye blind as if seeing
wore it out, a limp in its hindquarters,
lies on its stomach on the floor at your slippered feet,
content merely to dream in your presence.

In his old age, the fur on his paws has grown
so long he, too, seems to have on slippers.
When you reach down to rub his wary ears,
he sends you a secret message of gratitude.

Strange to be here so idly, after the days
of long walks, of chasing squirrels and sticks.
The days of hunting down reluctant quarry.
There were many days when he was your one companion.

It is you who should thank him, and so you do,
inwardly.  His eyes as they look up at you
are unspoken words; the blind one surely says
love.  He rests his muzzle on his paws.

It may snow tonight.  The storm windows
muffle the racket of the semis as they speed
past your house toward Illinois; the fire in
the fireplace makes a warm spot on the dog's coat,

you are warmed by both the fire and your dog
while candles burn and the coffee kettle heats.
It is as if your whole house is on fire
with a fire that does not burn or hurt.

This is home, where you and your old dog, Work,
hang out together, especially in autumn,
when the late tomatoes are killed by frost
and smoke from your chimney spirals into night.

And then there is the poem I wrote about Faith, our 11-year old German Shepherd, as fine a dog as Work and no less loyal:

Dog-Day

Lately, I miss your
siren-howl & midnight
bark, the joyous speech

of something deep
within.  There you lie,
deep within a wall of

silence.  Are you
remembering other
days, stronger days

behind brown eyes?
Do you run, retrieve &
roll on the spring grass?

I know you feel it in
your bones, the tug of
earth & water, the

winding down as spring
gives way to summer,
dog-days fall to winter.

I know it too.
I'm remembering too.

Yes, I'm sure that dogs
thrive in that land where
shadows run, where bones

are plentiful & you run &
don't grow weary.  Only roll
over now, have a scratch,

stretch & savor this moment
in the sun.  It's time to
remember, lay aside questions.

Smell the grass.
Feel the wind across your body.
Relish all that's given.

There'll be time enough to think,
time enough tomorrow.

Somehow, I can't imagine writing like that about cats, and I never heard of a cat named Work or Faith.  Those names just don't suit cats, do they?


Gwendel's Magic

Gwendle1_1Fairies.  What parent doesn't tell their children of the tooth fairy? The promise of money makes pulling a tooth more palatable to some children.  I suppose some don't celebrate this event, but my parent engaged in this ruse, and so have I, particularly as of late with my daughter.

Researching the origins of the tooth fairy, I found out that the legend is rooted more in pagan tradition than you might think.  Unlike the rather benign and even admirable folklore surrounding Santa Claus (which at least has to its credit a bit of fact as well), this myth is a stranger one.  This tooth-toting sprite is sometimes said to originate in the Scandinavian myth of the tomte, or nisse, a mythical creature said to take care of a farmer's home and barn and protect it from misfortune, particularly at night.  Cultural historians say such stories have always surrounded teeth and that they have been viewed in the past as valuable in warding off witches and demons.  Others say that the fairy developed from the 18th century French story of the tooth mouse, "La Bonne Petite Souris," in which a mouse turns into a fairy in order to help a good Queen defeat and evil King by hiding under his pillow to torment him and knocking out all his teeth.  In fact, in Spain the tooth mouse still comes, not the tooth fairy.  I don't know, but the idea of a mouse under the pillow that can knock out all my teeth is not one I'd share with a small child.

All in all, the fact that so much is made of teeth is a bit odd, isn't it?And what on earth are Christians doing celebrating a pagan-derived myth?  I suggest it's simply a form of imaginary play with children and quite useful in developing their imagination, much as the Santa Claus and Easter Bunny myths continue to have a hold on young minds.  More than this, such myths can point us to the "true myth," as C.S. Lewis would say, the gospel. 

Such myths encourage a faith in things unseen, a belief in the incorporeal, and, ultimately, an understanding of the difference between the real and the imaginary.  Depending on how you shape the myth and utilize it, it can be either good or bad.  I suppose it could lead to a belief in occult practices, magic, and witchcraft, but I suspect that is uncommon.  None of my childhood friends took that plunge.  On the other hand, myths can lead to a greater understanding of the true myth.  Such a myth can defamiliarize the biblical idea of an unseen God, something many Christian kids hear from Day One.  They can sharpen the too-familiar truth that God, like the mythical tooth fairy, is real, though unseen and incorporeal (without body).  Then, at the right time, a child can come to understand that while the tooth fairy is not real, God is, an ever-present helper though unseen.

For now though, I'm just having fun with my daughter who has lots of questions about the tooth fairy, like what her favorite color is, how tall she is, whether she has wings, and more -- and, of course, the ultimate question of whether she will show herself to my daughter (which she follows by saying "I won't blab.")

So, the truth is the Tooth fairy rocks!  Let the above soothe your guilt ridden conscience.  Don't disparage the tooth fairy, or you may get a tooth mouse!  And that's the tooth!


Magic

Pasture

Magic

"Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." 
C.S. Lewis, in a letter to his goddaughter

Maybe we'd leap, eyes screwed tight,
into a chalk-drawn scene, colorful in its
broad-brush strokes, with
dance
not dirge
rhyme
not rote
simple songs of nonsense
and sense
as we take our tuppence
this time to
feed the birds.

Like poor old Lu, some might say,
we are rich young fools
who walk, eagerly
through wardrobe doors,
listening for the Voice, for the
truth in this
Deep Magic.

"Yes, grief is great, son of Adam."
Son of mine.
Surely you'll know the
purple pain
melancholy blue
red ripping
dark doubt
stench of death
in life.  Only, yet only

Together click our heels and
over an East wind we'll rise
over the dingy streets,
these cluttered passages of
memory and
mourning,
tuppence in our hands,
rings on our fingers,

One single word on our lips.


God's Kind Hand: Growing Up in the Sixties (Chapter 3)

Wy_5 [God's Kind Hand is a series of vignettes about growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, written from the perspective of a teenage boy.  It is not autobiographical, though it is inspired by some events that actually ocurred.  You can read the combined Chapters 1, 2, and 3 here, if you like.]

That night was like cold hard steel.

Jimmy Murkawski and I lounged on the hood of my Dad’s Ford Fairlane station wagon, looking at the stars, or something, feeling the cold metal of the hood through my shirt.

“So, I’m sorry about your Dad.”

“I know.  Thanks”

Lame, but what could he say?  Jimmy Murkawski had been my best friend since moving here in 4th grade.  Every night Jimmy and I walked around our neighborhood, got a Pepsi at the neighborhood store, tried to meet girls (generally unsuccessfully).  Jimmy was loyal, always available, always a friend.  In fact, he was my only friend.

Inside it was funeral food and sober-faced people, some of whom I swear walked in right off the street just to get a free meal.  I had condolence fatigue. I could only mumble thanks, acknowledge them, and move on.  I had had enough of teary-eyed, weeping people.  I longed for something normal.

“I heard Donna Payne broke up with Brad Bullah.”

“What?  You’re kidding?  She’s free?”

“Yeah, she’s all yours Chuck.”

Mine, all mine.  I mean, Diane Payne was the best looking chick in the neighborhood.  About time she ditched an idiot like Brad Bullah. 

“I don’t know. . .”

“Well, maybe it’ll be just the thing to put your mind on Chuck, what with your Dad dying and all.”

“Yeah.”

Wait a minute.  I feel like a heel.  I mean, I’m evil.  Here I am thinking about a girl on the day after my Dad died.  What’s the matter with me?

“Man, I think I need  a little time.  I mean, I don’t know what to do.  It’s not like my Dad ever died before.  I mean, what do you do?

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.  I guess you gotta be sad, stay inside, remain sober, and generally have a terrible time, right?”

“Cut it out.  You know what I mean.”

Honestly, I didn’t know what to do.  I was concerned about my Mom, but mostly I just wanted my own life not to be upset too much.  Yeah, normal. I just wanted things to be normal.

I looked up at the sky.  It was a blanket of stars.  Dad, you up there?  At 15, life is existential, immediate.  I couldn’t get much farther than that wordless query.

Flipping over on my stomach, I looked through the front windshield and into the car.  Boxes and boxes of parts filled the back of the wagon.  What would we do with all those parts?  My Dad fixed washers and dryers and dishwashers.  I couldn’t. I wasn’t inclined mechanically.  No, I wasn’t inclined, period.  What am I going to do?

I saw him in the hospital two weeks before he died, all hooked up to machines and tubes.  He said Chuck take care of Mom, be a good boy, take care of your  Mom. . . and he grabbed my hand only it didn’t feel like his hand.  It was weak.  It was pale.

Take care of Mom? Be good? I don’t know what to do.

That’s what I mean.  Death is like cold hard steel.  Not a lot of answers here, just the cold hard fact of life ending.

Well, Jimmy and I got up and walked.  We walked the block.  We walked to the store.  We got a big Pepsi, and we drank it all, and we walked some more.  We stopped outside Donna Payne’s house. I stared at her window a long, long time.  Then I went home.   I just went home, home to linoleum floors and shag carpet, my mother’s weary face and dark dress, the people gone, the house cold.  I played Joni Mitchell, cold hard steel, oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.  I played I love you, my old man, my old man, played I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, and all I want, all I want is my old man, my old man.

All I want is my old man.


"New" Psalms

[Several years ago I tired my hand at writing in the manner of the Psalms, many of which are very honest, heartfelt longings for God.  The psalmist writes out of his trials and tribulations, as well as in the good times.  They are faith-affirming, yet not at all shallow.  As well as being good models for prayer, they are good reminders of what genuine poetry can be]

Hospital Psalm

Just once, I would like to hear a voice,
something to divide this tick-tocking
silence that wraps my ramblings, or
see God embodied, to touch my wound,
speak a golden word. Yet faith carries me, as
I mutter my psalm to the rhythm of the

elevator bell, the nurse's call, the window
looking out on home just turned the corner,
just wheeled away to darkness, into night.
Eyes liquid I press a hand to the cold, the
glass that separates, divides, and chills.
I mutter my how-long psalm to the silence,

as the man lies dying in five one four &
someone weeps in five one eight, as I
measure my steps, make my rounds, do my
part, counting the doors, numbering my days,
vicariously living the inhale-exhale of the
elevator-open-elevator-shut, as

I mutter my psalm,
listen to the silence
work out my salvation with

fear &

trembling.


The Ubiquitous "3"

3 Have you ever noticed how things so often come in threes?  There's the three-point sermon, for example, that really does seem to be an effective paradigm for preaching.  Or in writing, there is the essay -- introduction, body, conclusion --- and the sentence --- subject, verb, and object.  In argumentation, three points always seems a stronger base than two, and yet after three, the weight of each argument seems undercut, or diluted.  Being an attorney, I am familiar with this; attorneys do go on, you know, and on, and on. . .

3_1 In math, three is the number of perfection.  The triangle, for example, is plain geometry's only stable figure with straight lines.  Give the triangle volume and you have the pyramid -- certainly recognized by the ancient Egyptians as a stable structure (enduring to this day).  Then there's the three-legged stool, certainly more stable than the two-legged stool.

Undoubtedly there are more such examples, but I leave them to you.  (It has even been suggested that sneezes come in threes, though I doubt it.)  The point is, there is something about the number three, something built into the structure of creation that gives it, if not perfection, at least an important status.  What is it?

Christians need not look far.  Three existed before time itself, in the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  In fact, prior to Creation, only two numbers seem to matter: one, for one God, and three, in three persons.  So, to the extent we give priority to three, we come by it naturally, as a part of our creation in the image of God.  British Inkling Dorothy Sayers makes just this point in her book The Mind of the Maker, finding the roots of the artist's creative activity in the Trinity, in what she terms Idea (passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning), Creative Energy (begotten of that Idea, working in time from the beginning to end, manifesting the Idea in matter), and Creative Power (the meaning of the work and its essence in the soul, the indwelling spirit).  Never before has anyone said it like Sayers.

But it's not just the Trinity.  As Patrick Henry Reardon has noted, threes keep showing up in Scripture, which is full of tripartite formulations.  So the writer of 2 Corinthians sums up thus: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor. 13:14).  The Apostle Paul displayed a particular fondness for the threefold expression of faith, hope, and love, telling the Christians at Thessaloniki of his prayers for them, "remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope" (1 Thess. 1:3).  Yikes, it's even in verse 3!  It's most memorable expression is "And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three" (1 Cor. 13:13). Yikes, threes again!

3_2 Silliness aside, as we really have no warrant for any superstition about numbers, three or otherwise, there is something about the number three, don't you agree?  I think it is creational, a reflection of the Trinity as well as of the simple fact that, as wise Solomon noted, "a threefold cord is not easily broken" (Eccl. 4:12)., that is, such a structure has integrity and strength whether structure, argument, or relationship. (There I go again,thinking in threes!)

But, I'll leave you thinking on that.  I need to go out walking -- three miles today, in honor of God's "3."


A Season of Survival, Now

Bedroomdoor One of my favorite books is the 1975 Pulitzer prize winning novel by Larry Woiwode entitled Beyond the Bedroom DoorIt's been many years since I looked at this novel, but I can remember reading it just as if it was yesterday.  It was one of those books where the characters seem to walk right off the pages into your own daydreams.

Beyond the Bedroom Door is a large novel and, thus, not for the faint at heart.  It follows four generations of a North Dakota family -- particularly two children who have to come to grips with the death of their mother.  "Beyond the Bedroom Wall is a Christian novel of the covenant," Woiwode says in retrospect, "of four generations of a family resting on God's grace or rebelling against it." The different members of this family "all imagine they are in the covenant," he says. "Many are; some aren't. Some are violently and articulately outside it." For an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the circumstances portrayed and language used in his books are gritty, not gratuitous but simply a part of the reality he is describing.  Not only does he describe the characters in fine detail, it is as much a book about the geography of the Dakotas as about its hardy people.  For me, I always find this attention to place, this rootedness, fascinating.

Though Woiwode grew up in North Dakota, he moved away and lived in New York for years, a part of the literary establishment.  But, with children, cognizant of the shortcomings of the City, he returned to North Dakota in 1978 and lives on a 160 acre farm where he raises registered quarter horses and continues to write.

Season His most recent work is a memoir, or part of a memoir, entitled What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two ActsIn it he weaves together the story of survival during the harsh North Dakota winter of 1996 and his survival as a young writer at the start of his career.  It's not a stretch to compare the two: both writing as occupation and living in North Dakota can be harrowing experiences.

But back to the title of this post, "A Season of Survival, Now."  Last year Woiwode was in a serious accident on his farm in North Dakota. As his wife Carole describes the accident: “His jacket caught in the power takeoff shaft connecting the tractor to a baler and he was thrown from one side of the tractor to the other and pinned against the shaft. Fortunately the impact shut the tractor down. For the next hour he labored to get to his pocketknife and cut through the sleeve wrapping his right arm to the shaft. Though cut and bruised and badly shaken...he was able to free himself and walk to the house. We are thankful he did not lose an arm. We are thankful he is alive.” Larry did suffer several broken ribs, along with spine and nerve damage. Though he is Poet Laureate of North Dakota, he receives no financial support for this position and during his recovery he hasn't’t been able to work. Perhaps you might help the Woiwode family during this difficult time. Contributions are not tax deductible, but are deeply appreciated. Please send your check to Poet Laureate Benevolent Fund, c/o Crane & Anson, P.C., P.O. Box 99, Mott, ND 58646.

If you've read A Season of Survival, these events are reminiscent of the difficulties of the Winter of 1996, though it's not just staying warm this time, but keeping heads above water in financially difficult straights.  So, if you can help, then do.  He may be in North Dakota, and you may not have met him (I have not), yet he is my brother in Christ and I know him well -- through his books.

Acts I hope you'll read Beyond the Bedroom Door, or perhaps his book of excellent short stories entitled Silent Passengers, or his quasi-commentary on the Book of Acts, written for non-Christians, called simply ActsOr you can read more about him in World Magazine or Critique (both good articles).  You know, you have to be intrigued by someone who says "I write for The New Yorker because I hope to pull it in an increasingly Calvinist direction." There's hope, right?


The Value of Creeds

Books Several years ago I became interested in the practical utility of creeds.  I wanted to know how useful documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Larger and Shorter Catechisms were to actually living Coram Deo.  What are their benefits?  What are their pitfalls?  Why take the time to study and memorize portions of these archaic documents?

For help I turned to then Pastor Jim O'Brien, of what was then New Covenant Presbyterian Church.  A friend (Pete) and I shared an informal conversation with him over pizza, which I recorded and then transcribed.  Other than taking out the "uhs" and "ums," I left it pretty much as is.

I was absolutely amazed at the breadth of Jim's knowledge, his ability to articulate it in an understandable way, and his humble and transparent life.  He had a rich understanding of church history and had obviously pondered over how the creeds could be utilized in the life of faith.

Listen to what he says about the inescapability of creeds:

Well, if I came up to you and said "What do you believe?,"  you would say "I believe that..."  Well, the Latin word for "I believe" is credo.  So creed is simply the anglicized version of "I believe".  So, for example, we start in the Apostle's Creed with "I believe that..."  So, as soon as you tell me that you believe anything, you are telling me your creed.  The question is, is your creed clear, is in internally consistent, is it complete?  If your creed is not clear, then, you know, who is going to rally to an uncertain trumpet sound?

Or about the practical nature of the creeds:

We make a mistake in studying the catechism and confessions by looking at them as a statement of doctrine.  And, in our society, that just doesn't wash.  People aren't interested in just head knowledge and going to the Bible just to get information.  So you've got this situation where we are reading them to get our orthodoxy right.  And people instinctively say "What does that got to do with life?" "I need to live.  I need to go out and work.  I got to deal with a wife who is a finer Christian than I am.  Or a rascally woman or something.  I've got kids.  I've got cars that break down and I don't have enough money."  The people say "I'm not really interested in the abstract doctrines."  But, if you'll go and read through the standards.  Just sit and read.  Don't read the proof text.  Just read them and look for how you're to feel, what you're to do and that kind of experiential language.  You'll find these documents are as thorough a statement of Christian experience as there are.  But they are never studied that way.  

Or the guidance provided by creeds:

One of the things that creeds and confessions do is that they give you pointers and options.  Sometimes we fall into an error because we don't know there are any other options.  So we look at a text and we say "It seems to say that."  So you look at 1 John.  I remember a man terrorized me once by saying, you know, "that Christians can't sin."  Well, my feeble faith just went down in flames, because I knew I was sinning left and right.  But I didn't know how to answer him, because that is what the text said.  It just said it you know.  It was just simple Bible.  He was quoting the Bible.  But obviously the Bible doesn't teach that.  For a host of reasons, we know the Bible doesn't teach that.  But I didn't have the options.  I wasn't equipped with more options to think through what was wrong with his interpretation of that verse.  And verses don't always fit real neatly.  You have to think about them.  God has left the scripture in such a way that the sincere will not stumble.  That's the doctrine scriptures clarity.  But the wicked or insincere will fall into confusion.

You know, Jim O'Brien just talks that way, impromptu.  He's quotable!  I hope you'll read the entire transcript here.  I keep returning to the transcript of that interview every couple of years because it warms my heart to listen to Jim and hear his expression of the Gospel.  Creeds do matter,  What we believe matters.  It's what makes us what we are.

Godspeed, Jim.


Every CD Tells a Story, Don't It?

Before leaving for work this morning, I decided to freshen up my listening.  If you'll notice the relative dearth of recordings in the sidebar "Current Listening," you'll know that I cleaned house.  But rather than select simply what I wanted to hear from my collection of about 400 CDs, which can lead to predictable habits of listening, I closed my eyes and selected four CDs at random from different locations in my collection.  My promise to myself was that that I would listen through whatever I picked, as if it was the first time I heard it, giving it a chance to grow on me (if it was something I didn't instantly take to), and then consider why it remained in my collection.  After all, I have probably owned and given away, sold, or disposed of twice as many CDs as I now retain, so why should this CD remain?  That's the question.

Interestingly enough, each of the four CDs carried its own story -- regardless of how well I liked the music.  So, here's the four CDs, as well as the story or stories they brought to mind:

Love_beyond_2 First up was Noel Paul Stookey's post Peter, Paul, & Mary band Bodyworks' second CD release, In Love Beyond Our LivesOh my.  I've heard worse, of course, but this schmaltzy Eighties production quality CD bored me.  Lyrically, it's somewhat better, but even here, as Stookey shares the songwriting with Bodyworks members, it's not up to par, and the politically charged "El Salvador," (words by Jim Wallis) is downright iriitating.  Stookey can and has done much better.  After all, this is the guy who wrote the ubiquitous "Wedding Song," right?

But this CD remains.  Why?  Because it was Stookey who assisted in my coming to faith.  In high school, I used to listen to a radio program called "The Scott Ross Show," broadcast from Freeville, New York, from a Christian commune of sorts called Love Inn.  Phil Keaggy resided there, and it was from there that I heard Stookey give his testimony of coming to faith in Christ.  It was Stookey also who met and talked with me for longer than he needed to backstage at a club on Long Island where PP&M performed in the late Eighties.  It was also Stookey's music that one college girlfriend despised!  So, it stays.

Amradiocover The second CD by Billy Cerveny, called AM Radio, is much better!  It's musically like listening to a more edgy Bebo Norman.  I first heard Ceverny's song "My Father's Son" at a Young Life Family Camp in the Colorado Rockies called Trailwest, where it accompanied a video about a father who sacrificed weeks of time to do a triathlon with his paraplegic son.  It was a turning point for my own son, who then saw how much his Heavenly Father had sacrificed for him.  And it also has a great country cry-in-your-beer track called "www dot heartache" about a guy who loses his cyberspace girlfriend, you know, a chat-room no show.  He "loved the way her cursor moved across the screen."  It stays.

Imagination Things get progressively better.  Next up is former Beach Boys harmonic genius Brian Wilson's 1998 release, Imagination.  It's a fine album, with two gems, "Imagination" and "Lay Down Burden," both of which I chose to be covered by artists on the tribute CD Making God Smile released on my label, Silent Planet Records, in 2003, the year of Wilson's 60th birthday.  These songs remind me of his kindness to me when we have met on several ocassions over the last few years.  It stays.

Yes Finally, I pulled out the 2004 two-CD release by Yes called The Ultimate Yes: 35th Anniversary EditionYes was and still is the best progressive rock band in the world, and this set (almost) collects their best songs.  It also includes an interesting acoustic version of the amazing "Roundabout," as well as some other new tunes.  Again, it comes with a story.  Yes was on it's 30th year world tour in 2004 and I took my son to hear the concert in the Greensboro Coliseum, the same place where I first heard them in 9th grade with my first date in 1974!  How about that?  Back then, we were seated on the fourth row, in front of mammoth speakers, with bong pipes being passed down the row, in a cloud of marijauna smoke.  The sound was so deafening we could not hear each other (which was good because I didn't know what to say to her anyway).  Now that's a story.

All this goes to say that you never know what memories inanimate objects will trigger.  All these CDs have earned the right to remain on my shelves, if not for their music, then for the memories they carry.  Makes me think twice before I throw out a CD, you know?